Last time we met, I introduced a story I’m going to tell throughout my string of Food Studies blog entries.
The story is now officially beginning and it all started in a bathroom stall at the Miami International Airport this summer. I was in there on the verge of vomiting, not because I ate bad airport food, but because I was hyperventilating and nauseous with extreme anxiety. I was about to take off on my first solo international flight, to a third-world country in which they were still rebuilding after a civil war that ended only in 1992. The realization of “what the heck did I get myself into?” finally hit me.
I managed to collect myself to board the plane. I hate takeoff though, so my anxiety attack crept back upon me as the plane was about to rip from the runway. I was sitting there clenching the armrests—as if somehow gripping them could save my life should the plane spontaneously combust—and I could that see the man next to me had the “oh great I ended up next to the crazy girl” look on his face.
“It’s my first time to El Salvador,” I told him in Spanish, as if that would explain everything. “Ah,” he said and then turned away to talk to his chubby son who was playing a GameBoy.
I thought that was the end of our conversation so I then resorted back to my nervousness, but after awhile the man turned to me and said “You need to eat the coconuts there.”
Not knowing how to respond to this, I said “Oh… yeah, I like coconuts.”
And that seemed to open up a floodgate with this quiet man, who introduced himself as Jose Guzman. He launched into a discussion of all his favorite Salvadorian dishes which he insisted I must try and explained how he moved to Boston during the civil war years; what he missed the most was the food his mother cooked. He was practically salivating as he described all the rich flavors and comfort foods his mother and sisters promised to prepare and he was looking forward to showing his 10-year-old son, Luis, their heritage for the first time.
As I listened to Jose talk at length about his favorite home-cooked meals, I started to lose anxiety about the flight and my trip to El Salvador. It was easy to get my mind off my nerves because even though I was talking to a complete stranger (sorry mom), we were able to bond and converse because of a common interest—food.
I only spent about three hours on the plane talking to Jose Guzman, but in retrospect, my encounter with him can be seen as a tipping point in how I started to view food differently.
Recalling this experience made me think about food’s effect on mood. Even though I wasn’t eating on the plane, just talking about comfort foods with Jose started to relax me.
We all make the connection between food and mood everyday without even noticing. Eating is more than just quelling hunger to survive, it is an action we seek both in response and to affect emotions—and there is science to back this up.
For example, probably the most well-known case of food and its association with mood is chocolate. Chocolate is known to boost happiness by affecting the levels of endorphins and serotonin in the brain. (But chocolate is just one example that is well-understood.) Comfort foods work the same way as they trigger associated memories of eating in happy times with family or during one’s childhood.
Additionally, eating nutritiously and knowing you are doing so can affect mood positively by also boosting serotonin levels, which is an anti-depressant said to have a calming effect and help with sleep.
This made me think of food in the context of a college lifestyle. As students, we are constantly on the go: waking up late, no breakfast, class all morning, a quick dollar burger for lunch, gulping coffee before a block of afternoon classes, then an evening exam and then finally when we get home, we heat up and inhale microwavable pizza(s), and congratulations, around a thousand calories have just been consumed between 8:12 and 8:19pm…hypothetically speaking.
We eat comfort foods when we’re stressed, but is it possible we’re stressed because of a continual resort to comfort/unhealthy foods? Our busy lifestyles have caused a disconnect with the food we eat, stripping away meaning from our meals and thus taking a toll on our mood, a determinant of how we live the rest of our lives. (Or at least, in my own experiences, it has.) This is something that can be seen leading to the Disorder that is causing not only anorexia and bulimia, but also binge eating that can be a cause of obesity. While the science behind this is complex and something I don’t understand in its entirety, there is enough evidence to illustrate a fundamental association between food and mood which could further be explored in the fields of psychology or psychopathology.
I think the way to reconnect to what we eat is to start making food more personal, meaning going beyond the small talk produced between you and the cashier at the local fast-food joint. For Jose Guzman, this meant going back home to El Salvador. For us college students, it could mean going home too, like for Thanksgiving, or cooking every now and then with the roommates. Changing the way we connect with food in a fast-paced lifestyle could foster healthy habits and moods that will help us keep up with the speed of life.